Britain - Fairy tales and folk tales - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


19. Fairy tales and folk tales


Ruth B. Bottigheimer




The English Puritans had been deeply antipathetic to tales about fairies, which they considered relics of pagan, pre-Christian thought. In their view, tales about fairies and fairy tales were non-Christian in content and anti-Christian in intent. ‘And yet, alas!’ one committed Christian wrote,


how often do we see Parents prefer Tom Thumb, Guy of Warwick, Valentine and Orson, or some such foolish Book ... Let not your children read these vain Books ... Throw away all fond and amorous Romances, and fabulous Histories of Giants, the bombast Achievements of Knight Errantry.

(Fontaine 1708: vii)


Popular taste did not concur with Puritan antipathy, however and, when Tales of the Fairies (1699) was published in England, and when Galland’s Mille et une nuits (12 vols, 1704-17) was translated into English as Arabian Nights, individual stories were taken into the chapbook trade. There, chapbook purchasers immediately signalled their approval of magic by buying them in large numbers, together with subsequent translations of Madame d’Aulnoy’s Contes des Fees, which appeared in English translation as Tales of the Fairies (1699). With later, enlarged editions entitled Diverting Works (1707, 1715) and A Collection of Novels and Tales (1721) Mme d’Aulnoy’s tales provided texts that from the last third of the eighteenth century became well known in English: for example, ‘The Yellow Dwarf’, ‘Finetta the Cinder-girl’ and ‘The White Cat’.

In 1729 Robert Samber translated Perrault’s fairy tales as Histories, or Tales of Past Times and completed the eighteenth-century inventory of tales about fairies and fairy tales in England. In his dedication to the Countess of Granville, mother of Lord Carteret, Samber discussed the fairy tale as an improvement on Aesop’s fables: ‘stories of human kind,’ he wrote, ‘are more effectively instructive than those of animals’ (A 3v). Perrault’s fairy tales,’ he continued, were ‘designed for children’ yet the stories themselves ‘grow up ... both as to their Narration and Moral’ because ‘Virtue is ever rewarded and Vice ever punished in these tales’ (A 4r). Samber meant his book to be morally instructive, and he licensed no ‘poor insipid trifling tale in a tinkling Jingle’ with a ‘petty Witticism, or insignificant useless Reflection’. Samber bridged the cultural gap between France and England by giving some of Perrault’s characters English names (Red Riding Hood’s Christian name became Biddy, and the bad girl in ‘The Fairy’ was called Fanny), by defining an ogre (‘a giant that has long teeth and claws, with a raw head and bloody bones, that runs away with naughty little boys and girls, and eats them up’ (43)), and by offering a recipe for Sauce Robert in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (51). Nonetheless, Perrault’s tales were slow to penetrate the market for children’s books, doing so effectively only from the 1760s onward (Bottigheimer 2002).

When fairy tales entered both the chapbook trade and the children’s book market, they reproduced Samber’s prose, but dispensed with Mme d’Aulnoy’s frame tales and particularised vocabulary to produce simplified narratives of tales like ‘The Blue Bird’. They also simplified Arabian Nights stories to bring ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sindbad’ to a broad reading public (Summerfield 1984: 55).

When children’s literature was formally and self-consciously instituted in the mideighteenth century, England’s traditional giants were still an integral component of the moral lessons composed for children. Thomas Boreman’s tiny fourpenny book The History of Cajanus, the Swedish Giant (1742) offered a tongue-in-cheek biography of a seven- foot-tall giant, capable of remarkable fairy-tale-like acts. Sarah Fielding also used tales about fairies for The Governess - ‘the story of the cruel giant Barbarico, the good giant Benefico, and the pretty little Dwarf Mignon’ and ‘Princess Hebe ... To cultivate an early Inclination to Benevolence, and a love of Virtue, in the Minds of young Women’ (Fielding 1749: A 2r). Mrs Teachum, the governess of the title, viewed fairy tales with some alarm and cautioned that ‘Giants, Magic, Fairies, and all sorts of Supernatural Assistances in a Story, are only introduced to amuse and divert ... that they are figures of a sort’ (Fielding 1749: 68).

England’s fairies had long been securely harnessed to moral education, as the full title of Henry Brooke’s 1750 collection indicated: they contained ‘many useful Lessons [and] Moral Sentiments’ (cited in Kamenetsky 1992: 222). And although the word ‘moral’ was absent from its title, Robin Goodfellow, a Fairy Tale (1770) did the same.

In this period a new visual code was in the process of being established in Europe, in part codified by Lavater’s study of physiognomy. Lavater aimed to demonstrate that character could be read from countenance, and in children’s literature that perception translated into an equation of virtue with beauty. One stylistic consequence was that the authors of fairy tales for girls increasingly described the facial appearance of characters in their books.

Mme Leprince de Beaumont, whose arrival in England coincided with an acceleration in the commercial development of books for children, elevated tales about fairies and fairy tales to religious company in her Magasin des Enfants (1756). ‘La Belle et la Bete’ (70-102) appeared between the stories of Adam and Eve, and Noah. Like her predecessor, Sarah Fielding, she employed the device of a frame tale, in this case conversations between pupils and a governess. Eleanor (or Ellenor) Fenn, the author of The Fairy Spectator (1789), in the guise of Mrs Teachwell, used fairies for equally high moral ends. By the late eighteenth century, primers began to include fairy tales as reading exercises for children, and children’s magazines mixed fairy tales into a pot-pourri of rhymes, stories, and anecdotes (MacDonald 1982: 45, 110). Even the thoroughly amoral tales of The Thousand and One Nights were transformed by the earnest efforts of English educators into books with titles like the Reverend Mr J. Cooper’s (Richard Johnson) Oriental Moralist or The Beauties of the Arabian Nights Entertainments (1790). The stories themselves, quite different from the unobtrusive, almost logical metamorphoses of Western convention, re-stocked the European inventory of the fantastic with new magic objects, enchanted places and a dazzling array of startling transformations (Jan 1974: 35). In The Enchanted Mirror, a Moorish Romance (1814), for example, the properties of traditional magic mirrors were adapted to the requirements of moral improvement, so that this one returned viewers’ gazes with images of how they were rather than how they appeared (cited in Pickering 1993: 188), a further indication of the formative power of physiognomic thought on literature.

Despite the scoffing dismissal of fairy tales by official pedagogy in the eighteenth century - the Edgeworths commented in 1798 that they did not ‘allude to fairy tales, for we apprehend these are not now much read’ (cited in Opie and Opie 1974: 25) - fairy tales continued to grow in popularity (Pickering 1993: 187). Even Sarah Trimmer, who would later turn against fairy tales, acknowledged in The Guardian of Education that she had enjoyed them as a child.

The most frequently published individual fairy tale, ‘Cinderella’, provided a satisfying rags-to-riches plot that answered a longing felt in many segments of society: for example, among the newly literate but still poor buyers of chapbooks, as well as among the middle- class children who aspired to inclusion in more elevated social classes. The ‘Cinderella’ paradigm was as evident in Goody Two-Shoes (1765) as it was in Primrose Prettyface, but the tale contained within itself not only the hopeful promise of social elevation, but also disturbing possibilities for frightening social inversion. The French Revolution of 1789 and the bloody executions of the 1790s aroused suspicion about ‘Cinderella’ plots, which were believed to undermine social and political stability and evoked violent reaction. Sarah Trimmer now criticised fairy tales, and especially ‘Cinderella’, whom she ‘accused of causing ... the worst human emotions to arise in the child’ and conservative educators excised first Cinderella plots and then fairy tales themselves from books of moral improvement. One result was that post-1820 editions of The Governess appeared shorn of their fairy-tale interludes.

These attacks on fairy tales echo those that occurred a hundred years before, but a telling distinction separated criticisms of fantasy for children at the beginning and at the end of the eighteenth century. John Locke had warned against elves, gnomes and goblins (in tales about fairies), but by the end of the century it was the narrators that came under attack, as in Mrs Trimmer’s 1803 essay, ‘Mother Goose’s Fairy Tales’ in The Guardian of Education.

Enlightenment pedagogical principles left little room for imaginative constructs (Steinlein 1987: 115) and led to the ‘censorship of everything fanciful’, yet many authors recognised that imaginative tales induced a love of reading in children, and that, furthermore ‘much good advice and information can be conveyed in a Fable and a Fairy Tale’ (dedication of Oriental Tales (1802) cited in Jackson 1989: 195-6).

All of the practices and controversies that centred on fairy tales marked the genre as it appeared in nineteenth-century American and English children’s literature. For instance, the question of the educational value of fairy tales versus their putatively damaging consequences met head on in the Peter Parley-Felix Summerly debate. Samuel Griswold Goodrich’s Peter Parley books (1827 et seq.) grew directly out of eighteenth-century utilitarian principles and were relentlessly useful in their informational didacticism. Sir Henry Cole, under the pen name of Felix Summerly, opposed Goodrich’s objections with the playful fantasy of stories in his Home Treasury (1843-5) (Darton 1983: 219-51). This debate was never resolved, and both trains of thought survived into the twentieth century.

The maternality that had been imputed to fairy tales by both French and German theoreticians, if one may dignify the rank sexism that passed for reasonable fact with that word, lived on in the titles of fairy tales for children. Perrault’s tales were attributed to Mother Goose and Mme d’Aulnoy’s to Queen Mab or Mother Bunch, and along the way other fictive female relatives took their place among the authors of fairy tales: Aunt Friendly, Aunt Louisa and Mme de Chatalain.

It can be argued that national identity played a far smaller role in the English project of valorising fairy tales than in Germany and in other countries that were either emerging from domination by foreign governments, like Finland and Norway, or amalgamating a national state from disparate units, like Italy and Germany (cf. Schacker 2003). It was, rather, the dynamics of the publishing trade that played a large part in determining the contents of the scores of fairy-tale collections that English booksellers purveyed to the English child.

Chapbooks remained a prominent feature of nineteenth-century fairy tales for English children. Ross’s Juvenile Library delivered small twopenny 48-page books like Fairy Tales of Past Times from Mother Goose (1814-15) into young hands. The wolf became ‘Gaffer Wolf’; Blue Beard’s wife used part of the estate she inherited on the death of her wife- icidal husband to marry her sister to a young gentleman and to buy military commissions for her brothers.

Moralisation continued to mark nineteenth-century fairy tales, but it was more limited than it had been in the eighteenth century. For example, Cruikshank used ‘Cinderella’ as an anti-drink platform and Charles Dickens credited fairy tales with inculcating ‘forbearance, courtesy, consideration for the poor and aged, kind treatment of animals, the love of nature, abhorrence of tyranny and brute force’ (cited in Townsend 1974: 92).

Translations of other national fairy-tale collections poured into England, enriching its store of available fairy material. In 1849 The Fairy Tales of All Nations entered England from a German collection that was itself based on French publications; before that, in 1823, Edward Taylor had imported German fairy-tale narrative when he translated and published the first of two volumes of the Grimms’ tales as German Popular Stories. Illustrated by Cruikshank and provided with scholarly notes, its lively stories enchanted children, while the Grimms’ scholarly reputation overcame the objections of doubting parents. In 1848 Taylor also translated Giambattista Basile’s Neapolitan Pentamerone (1634-6), which like German Popular Stories, was illustrated by Cruikshank. He edited both the German and the Italian fairy tales heavily to remove objectionable features, such as some violent episodes in the case of Grimm and sexual references in the case of Basile.

Hans Christian Andersen’s Danish tales entered the British tradition in 1846 and soon gathered a large and enthusiastic following. Norse material arrived in 1857 when the Heroes of Asgard was printed, and Peter Christian Asbjornsen and J0rgen Moe’s enchanting Norwegian fairy tales were first translated in 1859 as East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon. There had also been imports from other parts of the British Isles, like Crofton Cooker’s Irish fairy tales (1825-8) and various collections of Scottish tales.

Each of the translations listed above represented a form of republication, but true republication began in earnest with renamed and reprinted collections of stories and fairy tales containing material taken from English-language books already published in England. Benjamin Tabart’s Popular Tales (1804 et seq.) was one such early republication, and the genre flourished increasingly as the century wore on. The Fairy Tales of All Nations (1849) reappeared as The Doyle Fairy Book (1890), while Mrs D. M. Craik’s Fairy Book (1863) retold stories from Perrault, d’Aulnoy and Grimm.

When Andrew Lang’s ‘colour’ Fairy Books appeared between 1889 and 1910, they codified fairy-tale narrative in the English language. The formative importance of Lang’s books for the English can hardly be overestimated, for they became a mother lode for many twentieth-century ‘authors’ of fairy tales for children. Lang himself firmly believed that fairy tales represented an ‘uncontaminated record of our cultural infancy’ (cited in Rose 1984: 9), and all twelve of his Fairy volumes - Blue, Brown, Crimson, Green, Grey, Lilac, Olive, Orange, Pink, Red, Violet and Yellow - were ‘intended for children’, whom he hoped would like ‘the old stories that have pleased so many generations’ (Lang c. 1889: Preface).

In the decade in which Lang began producing his Fairy Books, Joseph Jacobs issued English Fairy Tales (1890) and More English Fairy Tales (1894), which were followed by Celtic Fairy Tales (1892, 1894) and Indian Fairy Tales (1892). Ultimately, however, Lang’s fairy tales, with their more accessible prose style, carried the day.

The nineteenth century had also seen a return to tales about fairies. John Ruskin can be said to have initiated the movement with his extraordinary fantasy, The King of the Golden River (1851). The story’s three protagonists - Hans, Schwartz and Gluck - suggest the book’s Germanic imaginative ancestry, while its elaborate plot and magical devices link it to French tales about fairies that flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863), another quasi-fairy tale, united adventure tale qualities to fairyland characteristics and ‘seems like a prospectus for future generations of children’s fiction’ (Carpenter 1985: 38). The alternative reality it delineated came alive in George MacDonald’s classic tales about slightly allegorised fairy-tale-like worlds in At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1882). With these books, nineteenth-century tales about fairies had transformed themselves into forms that would serve as models for nineteenth- and twentieth-century high fantasy.

In the twentieth century, fairy tales in Britain’s children’s literature derived largely from the canon established in the nineteenth century. Modern fairy tales of that pattern can be said to have originated with ‘Uncle David’s Nonsensical Story’ in Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House (1839) (Townsend 1974: 93).